Sunday, January 29, 2017

Ruling of the Week 2017.4: Midwakh from UAE

This is a good week to be talking about trade with the Middle East. I am talking about trade in goods, which is what I do. I don't talk about immigration issues. That's too bad because yesterday was a doozy of day in the history of immigration law in America. Congratulations to the ACLU and everyone who helped secure a stay of the President's order barring entry for people from seven majority-Muslim countries (including those already holding green cards and visas). That was a tremendous effort at ensuring the rule of law, not to mention humane treatment for people who had the bad luck of being on a plane at the moment he signed the order. There were many examples of lawyers showing up at airports around the country to help stranded travelers. Some of them were affiliated with the International Refugee Assistance Project. Both the ACLU and IRAP deserve your support.

That said, I will focus on something entirely superficial: the customs treatment of mewakh pipes.

These are small wooden pipes that, in N257162 (Oct. 3, 2014), Customs and Border Protection described as being "of Arabian origin." That puts me in mind to watch Lawrence of Arabia and makes me wonder why they were not described as originating in the United Arab Emirates, which is what the facts state.

These are pipes traditionally used in the region to smoke dokha, which is a blend of tobacco, other leaves, bark and herbs. Dokha can also be flavored with fruit.

According to Customs and Border Protection, the pipes are classifiable in 9614.00.2500, not surprisingly, as "smoking pipes . . . of wood . . . ."

In the ruling, CBP made a couple useful observations. First, dokha of Iranian origin is probably subject to sanctions and not admissible into the United States. That seems to have been a complete aside as there is no indication that dokha was the subject of the ruling. But, I am not being sarcastic, that extra bit of information may have been useful to the ruling requester.

Second, CBP noted that the importer might want to look into whether the medwakh constitute drug paraphernalia, which would also not be admissible. Under 21 U.S.C. § 863, it is unlawful to sell or transport drug paraphernalia. But, under subsection 21 U.S.C. § 863(f)(2), the prohibition does not apply to “any item that, in the normal lawful course of business, is imported, exported, transported, or sold through the mail or by any other means, and traditionally intended for use with tobacco products, including any pipe, paper, or accessory.” That standard has come to mean that Customs looks to whether the imported item is primarily intended for use with illegal drugs, including a review of the labeling, instructions, marketing, display, etc. Under that standard, a mirror might be treated as drug paraphernalia if it is etched to depict razor blades, tiny spoons, and rolled dollar bills. [Note to my parents: The only reason I thought of those particular items is because I have seen Scar Face one too many times. Really.] For more on this, see HQ H150766 (Mar. 8, 2011)(holding that hookas area not drug paraphernalia).

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Ruling of the Week 2017.3: Indirect Materials

I do a lot of NAFTA-related work. At least I do this week. It remains to be seen whether that changes soon. Secretary of Commerce designee Wilbur Ross told the Senate committee considering his nomination that his top priority would be renegotiating NAFTA. So, this may all change. As we sometimes have to tell clients, the situation is fluid.

In the meantime, the NAFTA rules of origin continue in place. Often, for a product to qualify as originating, it must have a Regional Value Content of 50% when calculated with the net cost methodology or 60% when calculated with the transaction value methodology. There are exceptions, especially for automotive products. You need to check the rule applicable to your product in HTSUS General Note 12.

Sometimes, producers are close but cannot hit the required RVC. There are a few means provided in the regulation for adding to the RVC. One of the best is the designation of a self produced material as an intermediate material. HQ H273100 (Jan. 6, 2016) is a good example of how that works.

The producer was making starter motors for lawn tractors in Mexico. As part of that process, it also made the DC motor at the heart of the starter motor assembly. The starter motor is classified in 8511.40.00 and is subject to an RVC requirement because not all of the non-originating materials make a required tariff shift under the applicable rule.

The DC motor is classified in 8501.32. If the producer thinks just about the finished motor assembly, all of the non-originating materials in it make a qualifying change in tariff classification. That means the motor would, if certified separately, qualify as originating.

The useful thing to know here is that Part III, Section 6(4) of the NAFTA Rules of Origin Regulations provides (in relevant part):

Except as otherwise provided in section 9 and section 10(1)(d), for purposes of calculating the regional value content of a good under subsection (2) or (3), the value of non-originating materials used by a producer in the production of the good shall not include

the value of any non-originating materials used by the producer in the production of a self-produced material that is an originating material and is designated as an intermediate material.

As a result, and as Customs and Border Protection confirmed in this ruling, the value of non-originating materials used in the production of the motor are not counted toward the value of non-originating materials when doing the RVC calculation for the starter motor. It does go in the net cost. That means, the total value of the motor is treated as originating, despite containing non-originating materials.

This rule makes perfect sense. The motor sub-assembly could have been purchased from a third party. If that third party used exactly the same supply chain and production process, it would have been able to certify the motor as originating. The purchaser of the DC motor would not have been penalized for any non-originating material in the motor. The intermediate material rule recognizes that a vertically integrated manufacturer should not be at a disadvantage.

The wrinkle here is for automotive goods. The references in the regulation to section 9 and section 10(1)(d) cover that. For light-duty automotive goods, the net cost methodology is modified to require a higher RVC and "tracing." Tracing means that the value of non-originating materials includes the value of certain designated materials, even if they are in a sub-assembly. That non-originating value must be captured and brought forward for the RVC calculation. A similar limitation applies to heavy-duty automotive components, component-assemblies, and sub-components.

If you are having trouble getting to the required RVC, look for self-produced sub-assemblies in your bill of materials. There may be enough value there to get your product over the hump.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Lock Washers: Scope and Suspension

Here, we continue our dive into the intersection of customs and trade law. The Court of International Trade decision in United Steels and Fasteners, Inc. v. United States, raises interesting issues about how scope decisions from the Department of Commerce impact customs entries awaiting liquidation. If you are a traditional customs compliance professional who does not often delve into trade questions, buckle up. This will be bumpy.

This case involves the antidumping duty order on Helical Spring Lock Washers from China. The scope of this particular order covers:

circular washers of carbon steel, of carbon alloy steel, or of stainless steel, heat-treated or non-heat-treated, plated or non-plated, with ends that are off-line. HSLWs are designed to: 1) function as a spring to compensate for developed looseness between the component parts of a fastened assembly; 2) distribute the load over a larger area for screw or bolts; and 3) provide a hardened bearing surface. The scope does not include internal or external tooth washers, nor does it include spring lock washers made of other metals, such as copper. The lock washers subject to this investigation are currently classifiable under subheading 7318.21.0000 of the Harmonized Tariff Schedule of the United States (HTSUS). Although the HTSUS subheadings are provided for convenience and customs purposes, our written description of the scope of this investigation is dispositive.
The order was first published in 1993.

In 2013, American Railway Engineering and Maintenance-of-Way Association ("AREMA") submitted a scope clarification request to Commerce concerning a specialized type of washer made to its own standards. These washers have modest helicality, a square or rectangular cross section, do not meet the ASME standards referenced in the ITC Report in this case, are specifically for railway use, and (among other things) are 50% to 130% thicker than typical helical spring lock washers. Shakeproof Assembly, the petitioner in the original dumping case and a defendant intervenor in the CIT, responded to the scope request arguing that the washers are within the scope of the order and, furthermore, requesting that Commerce instruct Customs to suspend liquidations and request cash deposits for all unliquidated entries back to the start of the administrative review.

Commerce ultimately held that the washers are within the scope of the order. Commerce also ordered Customs to retroactively suspend liquidations back to the date of the order.

This raises two obvious questions. First, is Commerce right about the scope? Second, should Customs have retroactively suspended liquidations?

The Scope Part

Petitioners and Commerce cannot always specify exactly what merchandise comes within the scope of an antidumping (or countervailing duty) order. Orders tend to specify some products and include general terms to catch similar products. When an interested party needs certainty about a product, it may apply to Commerce for a scope clarification under 19 CFR 351.225. In some cases, Commerce will decide the scope issue on the basis of the language of the order under 19 CFR 351.225(d) without commencing a formal inquiry. If that is not possible, Commerce can initiate a formal scope inquiry under 19 CFR 351.225(e).

If an interested party disagrees with the scope determination, it can challenge the decision in the Court of International Trade. The Court will uphold a scope determination that is supported by substantial evidence on the record. That is a highly deferential standard that means the Court may have to uphold a Commerce Department decision even if the judge disagrees with the result. Generally, these decisions can only be overturned where there is a lack of evidence in the administrative record to support them.

Commerce found that the AREMA washers are helical spring lock washers and that the distinguishing characteristics were not sufficient to remove them from the scope of the order. According to Commerce, the design and function of the AREMA washers minimalize helicality [Note: that is a phrase to consider] but did not strip them of their helical function. Commerce was helped in this regard by language in the petition noting that a "significant portion of the larger sizes [of helical spring lock washers] are used for installation of railroad tracks." That seems to be directly addressed at AREMA's product.

Plaintiff raised a number of arguments to show that Commerce's decision was not supported by substantial evidence. First, the fact that these washers are made to AREMA standards, rather than the more common ASME standard. This was not sufficient given that the administrative record shows no requirement that in-scope washers be made to any industry specification. Similarly, the fact that helical spring lock washers generally have a trapezoidal cross-section is not an exclusion of washers with other cross-sections. The Court also found that record evidence supports Commerce's finding that the unique thickness-to-diameter ratio of the AREMA washers did not remove them from the order. In the end, the Court rejected Plaintiff's arguments and found that Commerce's determination was based on substantial evidence in the record. So, the AREMA washers are in scope.

The Liquidation Part

To a degree, that is all background to the second question. To my mind, this is the more interesting part.

Having found the washers to be in scope, Commerce instructed Customs to suspend liquidation of unliquidated entries of AREMA washers as far back as 1993, when the order was first entered. As a practical matter, that means newish entries that have not liquidated and entries subject to an existing injunction. According to the Court, this means entries between October 1, 2011 and September 30, 2013. If this retroactive application of the scope determination is correct, this is the kind of unanticipated potential liability that keeps importers awake at night.

Under the Commerce regulations, specifically 19 CFR 351.225(l)(3), if products are found to be within the scope of the order, Commerce is to instruct Customs to suspend liquidation and to require a cash deposit of estimated duties, "for each unliquidated entry of the product entered, or withdrawn from warehouse, for consumption on or after the date of initiation of the scope of inquiry." In this instance, there was no formal scope inquiry initiated under § 351.225(3). Commerce decided the issue on its own under § 351.225(d). According to Commerce, that means the regulation does not address this exact fact pattern and Commerce can instruct Customs to suspend liquidation back to the date of the order.

The CIT disagreed. First, the history of the regulation makes it clear that suspension of liquidation is a serious step that can have significant consequences for importers and foreign exporters and producers. But, the domestic industry is entitled to the protection of the order for all in-scope merchandise. To balance these interests, Commerce set the date of potential suspension as the date of initiation of the scope inquiry. Thus, while not addressing this circumstance, it is clear that Commerce intended the potential period of subject entries to be limited. Looking to a prior CIT decision, the Court found that Commerce is limited in its authority to request the suspension of duties, regardless of the formality of the proceeding. The Court of Appeals similarly limited Commerce's authority in scope inquiries to after the date of initiation. Without these limits, Commerce would always be able to request suspension retroactive to the date of the order simply by choosing to forgo a formal scope inquiry under 351.225(e) in favor of an informal proceeding under 351.225(d).

Commerce made a good argument that its decision in this scope case was the equivalent of a finding that the AREMA lock washers were always within the scope of the order. By limiting the ability of Commerce to request suspension back to the date of the order, the Court is allowing in-scope merchandise to escape the lawful order. That is true. But, the Court noted, Customs had not identified these products as in-scope. The importer saw the question as uncertain and, therefore, took the correct step of seeking a scope clarification. Under these circumstances, the importer is entitled to rely on Customs' treatment and not have liquidations suspended and cash deposits collected until after the (admittedly informal) scope inquiry was commenced. The exact timing of which remains to be seen. The Court remanded to Commerce to issue new instructions consistent with this decision.

This is a good result for importers of merchandise that is found to be within the scope of an order after entry. The potential liability for antidumping and presumably countervailing duties is limited to unliquidated entries made on or after the date of the scope inquiry. But, do not read too much into that. This is not a Customs penalty case. In theory, Customs can still find that the importer's failure to deposit dumping duties was the result of negligence, gross negligence, or fraud and impose a penalty in addition to collecting duties. Given that customs penalty can be two times the amount of the duties owed for simple negligence, it is possible that a customs penalty will fair outstrip the unpaid duties to be owed as a result of a properly timed suspension of liquidation. On the other hand, if the importer exercised reasonable care (and can prove it), then liquidated entries are final and no penalty would be appropriate.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

What the Frak?

Spin up the FTL drive and meet me in the CIC, the Federal Circuit has issued its first 2017 decision in an appeal from the Court of International Trade.

Here is the sitrep: The case in question is Schlumberger Technology Corp. v. United States. The merchandise in question is bauxite proppants. These are the bits of granulated bauxite used in hydraulic fracturing operations to hold open cracks in the rock structures and, thereby, allow for the efficient extraction of oil and gas . In other words, these little bits of bauxite "prop" open the cracks. The proppants are produced from bauxite ore taken from the earth (or, in Hebrew, "Adama") and milled to a powder then granulated to produce larger particles. The particles are sorted by size, dried and kiln fired.

Customs classified the proppants in HTSUS Heading 6909 as "Ceramic wares for laboratory, chemical, or other technical uses; ceramic troughs, tubs, and similar receptacles of a kind used in agriculture; ceramic pots, jars and similar articles of a kind used for the conveyance or packaging of goods . . . ." Schlumberger countered that the correct classification is in  Heading 2606 as "Aluminum ores and concentrates . . . ." During litigation, the government proposed an alternative classification in 6914 as "Other ceramic articles."

Cutting to the chase, the government can only win this case if the bauxite proppants are ceramic wares or other ceramic articles. HTSUS Note 1 to Chapter 69 states that the Chapter covers "ceramic products which have been fired after shaping." Looking to a dictionary, the Federal Circuit held that shaping means "to give a particular or proper form to by or as if by molding or modeling from an undifferentiated mass" or "to give definite or finished shape to  . . . ." The Federal Circuit then noted evidence that the finished proppants vary in size by as much as 100%. This, according to the Court, does not equate to have a definite or particular shape. Thus, the merchandise would be excluded from Chapter 69.

Another important argument that supports the same conclusion is based on the legal principle of noscitur a sociis under which we determine the meaning of the word by looking at the words around it. So, what are the examples of ceramic items included in Chapter 69? We see troughs, tubs and similar receptacles; ceramic pots, jars and similar articles; mortars and pestles; beakers; letters, numbers, and sign-plates; and heating apparatus. All of which are products of a definite form and are quite unlike the bauxite proppants of varying size. This argument, therefore, is old-school felgercarb.

What about Heading 2606? The HTSUS does not define "aluminum ore." However, Note 2 states that "ore" refers to "minerals of mineralogical species actually used in the metallurgical industry for the extraction of" certain metals including aluminum." But, the note makes clear that material may still be an ore "even if [it is] intended for nonmetallurgical purposes." I wonder why that last point was necessary since aluminum ore is an eo nomine term, making its use almost irrelevant. Bauxite is the mineral from which aluminum is extracted. A significant amount of aluminum probably goes into making these.

The Note, however, excludes products that "have been submitted to processes not normal to the metallurgical industry." Normal processes include crushing, grinding, screening, agglomeration into grains, and drying. These describe the process of making proppants. The fact that the steps were not related to the extraction of aluminum does not matter to the outcome. Nothing in the note requires that the processes be for the purpose of extracting metal from the ore. Lastly, contrary to the government's argument, Heading 2602 is not, by its terms or any other authority, limited to ores in primary forms as opposed to ready to use finished products such as proppants.

How did the government react to this result? My guess is something like this:

Friday, January 13, 2017

Ruling of the Week 2017.2: Emergency War Material Covers Failed NAFTA Claim

I like this ruling. It is HQ H273101 (Nov. 4, 2016).

This is a case where the importer made a NAFTA claim. When asked by Customs and Border Protection, the importer either could not or just did not support the claim. It happens. Sometimes, subsequent review turns up a problem with the NAFTA documentation. Sometimes, the broker should not have made the claim to start with. Lots of things happen in the real world.

This particular product is a multi-sensor electro-optical surveillance and targeting turret from Canada. As you might imagine, a multi-sensor electro-optical surveillance and targeting turret is a piece of military equipment. When the NAFTA claim failed, the importer asserted that the merchandise is entitled to duty-free entry as war material certified as such by a military procuring agency under HTSUS item 9808.00.30. It submitted the necessary certificates.

Customs liquidated the entry at the applicable 4.5% rate of duty and the importer protested. Customs granted the protest. It noted that in the absence of willful negligence or fraudulent intent, the importer can, prior to liquidation, submit documents to support a claim for free or reduced duties. The regulation that supports this is 19 CFR 10.112. Note that the regulation allows for the documents to be submitted even after liquidation but before the liquidation is final. That is a narrow window of 90 days following liquidation. See 19 USC 1501.

Why do I like this rulings? It is not just because the importer won. It is also because the importer, or its counsel, took a step back from a problem, surveyed its options, and found a creative solution. I also like it because it reaffirms for importers and brokers that the filing of the entry is not necessarily the end of the process. If there is a better option or a way to reduce duties after the entry summary has been filed, go ahead and submit the appropriate documents. There is money to be saved, go save it.

Thursday, January 05, 2017

Ruling of the Week 2017.1: Geeks Will Eat Anything

It is a new year and a lot has changed in the world. People in my field are either excited about the possibilities of major changes in trade policy or are horrified by the possibilities of major changes in trade policy.

I have had several calls about whether the U.S. will withdraw from NAFTA, impose new duties on goods made in Mexico by U.S.-based companies, and raise tariffs on goods from China. My answer so far has been, "I wish I knew." The new President and the new Congress will have a lot of authority under domestic law. The bigger questions will relate to how our trading partners respond. The U.S. has agreed many times to hold or lower duties. Going back on those promises will mean violating WTO obligations and multiple free trade agreements. Some people may not care. The U.S. remains fully sovereign and can violate any international agreements it choses. As a former partner used to say, "The WTO has no army."

But, the WTO has the ability to authorize trade retaliation. That means our trading partners will likely raise tariffs on U.S. goods in retaliation for stiffer U.S. tariffs. That makes it harder for U.S. companies to export. Add to that the impact of U.S. tariffs making it harder to import. We could end up with a situation in which domestic producers face higher costs for imported raw materials and components and then can't export their finished goods. That is a bad scenario.

Despite those two paragraphs, I tend to be an optimistic person by nature. I don't really expect the professionals who will be running White House trade policy and Congress to brazenly flout trade agreements and obligations. I don't think anyone wants to start an old fashioned trade war. But, as I said, I can't see the future. It's possible.  We all need to be watching closely. No matter your business needs and policy desires, this is a good time to make sure you have your Senators and Representative on speed dial.

Happy New Year. 2017 will be interesting.

Which brings me to the ruling of the week, N126516 (Oct. 19, 2010), in which we learn that human beings will eat just about anything. In this case, we are talking about snacking on arthropods.

Item 1: Giant toasted leafcutter ants.

Via Wikipedia
Item 2: Oven-baked tarantula spiders.

Also Via Wikipedia
According to the importer, the ants are "grown specially for human consumption" and have a "nutty, bacon-like taste." The spiders, on the other hand are "crisp, crunchy, ready-to-eat snacks." The importer also requested a ruling on scorpions that have been farm raised, detoxified, and are uncooked. For whatever reason, CBP decided it was lacking the necessary information to rule on that tasty snack.

The actual classification of the ants and spiders did not seem to controversial. These are food items prepared and packaged for human consumption. There not being a more specific place these delicacies, CBP classified them as "other prepared or preserved meat, meat offal, or blood." When canned, the classification would be 1602.90.9080; un-canned it is 1602.90.9080.

The importer here is a company called Think Geek Inc. I believe this is its website. Let me just say that this is right in my wheelhouse. I would like one of these and this and this (XL) and even this. Take all my money. I might even trade tariff classifications for gift cards. What I don't want is to eat tarantulas. And, yes, I am fully aware that arthropods provide a valuable source of protein and calories. The fact of the matter is that I get too many calories as it is. Unlike Chicago-mix popcorn and frozen yogurt, I can pass up the spiders and ants.